The Winter Guest

The Winter Guest

I’ve mentioned in writing about a few films that I’ve had a problem understanding heavily accented English, to where I’d prefer such movies have subtitles (which only infrequently do they).

The Winter Guest is a Scottish movie, and I understood maybe 75% of the dialogue. It varied quite a bit from character to character; I understood 90% or more of what some of the characters said, and more like 50% of what some others said.

On the whole this is not a movie that got through to me in a big way or that I’d rank very high, but one thing I did appreciate about it is how visually striking certain scenes are.

It is set in a small, snow-covered town in Scotland. There is an utter bleakness to it that is strangely beautiful in its way. One gets an impression of total isolation, as each edge of the town opens up onto a white expanse of emptiness. (The weird thing it brought to my mind is the short story “It’s a Good Life”—which was adapted as a famous Twilight Zone episode—about a child with close to omnipotent powers who has isolated his small town such that there is absolutely nothing in any direction outside of it. According to the story, no one knows whether he removed the town from the universe and located it elsewhere, or simply made the entire rest of the universe disappear such that reality now consists solely of this town.)

It’s a “slice of life” style movie, about four pairs of people, with the four threads only minimally overlapping. One pair consists of a depressed woman (Emma Thompson) and her elderly, annoying but loving mother (played by Thompson’s real life mother), one is two schoolboys playing hooky, one is a young man and his aggressive suitor (a bold, assertive, somewhat tomboyish but beautiful girl—the sort of predator many of us wouldn’t mind at all having in our life), and the last is two old women whose hobby is attending funerals (rather like the protagonists in Harold and Maude).

It’s the kind of movie where people talk around things, and there’s a lot of psychologically complex stuff going on, meaning that missing so much dialogue is even a bigger deal here than with most movies. I gather there’s a lot of heavy symbolism and such that I likely wouldn’t have gotten regardless, but I’m sure I would have understood and enjoyed this movie considerably more if I could have deciphered all of the dialogue. Instead I was bored and a little confused for much of it.

Of the four pairs, the kids may have held my interest the least well, though there were interesting moments here and there. The young couple also didn’t have much of an impact on me, but I think there was stuff going on there that I missed because of the accents that would have made it more interesting. The old ladies who go to funerals get the least screen time of the four. I liked them, but really their clips are more comic relief, until the end when one of them has something of a breakdown.

The Emma Thompson and her mother pair was the one I got into the most (relatively speaking; really none of the four engaged me in a big way). I was intrigued by that relationship, by the shifting dependencies, the communication that was only intermittently effective, the mother’s tartly witty verbal style, the way familiarity and the burdens of their history caused them to push each other’s buttons with remarks an outsider likely wouldn’t recognize as annoying or offensive. And I liked the warmth that is manifested at the end that you kind of always knew was there.

Some of the mother’s lines, and even things about her that are unspoken, convey certain poignant truths about aging that spoke to me, for instance when she looks in the mirror and remarks that she’s still the same person she was when she was 17, that only the externals (which is mostly what people react to) have changed. That very realization occurred to me many years ago, and it’s had a real impact on how I see myself and people in general ever since.

This movie started as a play, and occasionally it does have a bit of that artificiality that filmed plays sometimes have.

I kind of wish I could have gotten into The Winter Guest more, as I think it’s an intelligent movie with quite a lot going on in terms of human psychology and relationships. But it’s slow and dreary much of the way, and especially with the language issues hampering my understanding, I was only able to gain a limited appreciation of it.

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